Among the many religious voices of the First Great Awakening, none is better known than Jonathan Edwards, who in July 1741 delivered his most famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” It’s a terrifying call to repentance, the paradigmatic American jeremiad, confronting its audience aggressively with their sinfulness, inadequacy, and helplessness before God. Law professor and theologian Cathleen Kaveny, who has written a book on the genre, refers to it as “moral chemotherapy,” a kind of shock treatment that aims to awaken its audience’s moral instincts and purge them of complacency and hesitation. This is the form that Matt Walsh attempts in Church of Cowards: A Wake-Up Call to Complacent Christians. Walsh, a regular contributor to the Daily Wire (the conservative website run by Ben Shapiro), is known for his anti-feminist and transphobic opinions, as well as a blunt and confrontational rhetorical style that he does not hesitate to display in this book. But jeremiads (sermons inveighing against a broken society in the manner of the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah) are tricky things to write. A Christian jeremiad is rhetorically destructive, but it aims to open the way for people to encounter God; this ultimately demands great compassion and a pastor’s sensitivity for what is conducive to the audience’s well-being. “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is replete with dire warnings about the torments of hell, but Edwards’ theological writings reveal a lifelong preoccupation with beauty, grace, and selflessness. If you hope, like Edwards, to write a good moral polemic, then like Edwards you need a clear vision of what ultimately animates it, and for a Christian, that vision must be the Love that holds the stars in their orbits and submitted to death so that all might live. Walsh’s book seems to lack such a vision, and this concerns me a great deal.
For most readers on the left, this book is useful mostly as the record of someone deeply and sincerely invested in religious conservatism. This is an important segment of American society, because it has long constituted a base for the Republican Party, and I hope this review shows what dialogue with religious conservatives can look like. I am perhaps the most sympathetic left-wing audience for Walsh’s project. We are both practicing Catholics with a deep distrust of liberal theology, and both of us long to see more of our fellow Christians committed to proclaiming and living the gospel that, we believe, brings jubilee to the poor, healing to the sick, freedom to the captive, and life to the dying. I believe, as he does, that every moment of a Christian’s life should bear witness to the love of God. As a Christian, therefore, I am perturbed by the absence of such witness in this book. Walsh attempts a jeremiad mostly devoid of love or compassion, and shot through with a deep fear that Christians who open themselves to the world will be consumed by it.
Walsh begins by imagining what would happen if a “heathen horde” showed up in the United States, bent on making “believers in the West…suffer the same persecution those in the East have faced for two thousand years.” (The American right is very fond of evoking the plight of Christians in western and central Asia. This oppression is very real, but the vague terms in which conservatives speak about it should raise our suspicions. Indeed, close allies of the United States are some of the most egregious persecutors of Christians in the world: Saudi Arabia is an apartheid state that punishes all religious expression except its own Wahabist interpretation of Islam, while both Turkey and Israel have conducted long campaigns of ethno-religious cleansing against substantially Christian ethnic minorities.) Walsh’s imaginary “heathens” show up ready to kill American Christians—their reasons for doing so are never even speculated on—but discover that there are no “real” Christians, no genuine believers upon whom the unexplained hatred of these faceless killers can find purchase. They encounter various configurations of modern churches that Walsh finds doctrinally and aesthetically offensive: gay or female clergy, contemporary music, and universal salvation all draw his ire. But the last church that Walsh narrates, the one that seems to infuriate him most, is an imagined Catholic parish with worship songs from the 80s, an older congregation, a meandering homily, and a number of laypeople assisting in distributing Holy Communion. The hypothetical butchers laugh most of all at this, thinking that such a scene could not possibly represent the Christianity that they have come, for some reason, to destroy, and Walsh endorses this judgment: these Christians are not, in his view, worth martyring.
His endorsement alarms me. Yes, the scene that he describes is a tepid and unenthusiastic service; the homily is probably not morally or theologically edifying, and the music altogether too peppy. I have sat through many such Masses myself, and I wish they were much less common. But what Walsh’s account omits entirely is that this somewhat drab and uninteresting scene is also, for believers, the site of a miracle. Bread and wine become the living body and blood of the Son of God, whose sacrifice for the sin of all humanity is made present again so that the faithful can eat his flesh, drink his blood, and thereby have everlasting life. For Walsh to characterize this deep and wondrous miracle as mere fluff is, therefore, both alarming and revealing: it distresses me deeply to see a fellow Catholic describe what is for us the center of Christian life as false or unreal simply because he dislikes the aesthetics. Walsh’s dismissal of the spiritual value or theological reality of a service just because the music is bad reveals the deep fear that runs through his book, blinding him to what he should see as God’s work and presence among people he dislikes.
Church of Cowards sees the world as a series of traps, and authentic Christianity for Walsh is nothing but the avoidance of these traps. His explicit model in this is Rod Dreher, a Protestant-turned-Catholic-turned-Orthodox writer who in 2017 published The Benedict Option, a book in which he urges Christians to retreat from American society at large and form insular, self-sustaining communities in which they can fully live their faith. Walsh shares Dreher’s view that Christians have lost the American culture war; he approvingly cites The Benedict Option during a lament about the ways in which omnipresent TV and computer screens introduce moral corrosion (in the form of feminism, sex on TV, and contact with LGBT people or people of non-Christian religions) even into devoutly Christian homes. I think this isolationist impulse is deeply mistaken, and arises from a desire to locate “the world” someplace outside of and external to the Christian. But the Desert Fathers and Mothers, the early pioneers of Christian monastic life, warn against this: the Sayings of the Desert Fathers preserve some of their teachings and show that even monks struggle against the world, because the world is not a place but a condition. In that collection, we read that when Abba Longinus told Abba Lucius of his plan to shut himself in his cell and refuse all human contact, and so perfect himself, Abba Lucius replied to him, “Unless you amend your life while you are out and about among people, you will not succeed in amending it while dwelling alone.” Similarly, Amma Syncletica is recorded to have said, “There are many who live in the mountains and behave as if they were in the town; they are wasting their time. It is possible to be a solitary in one’s mind while living in a crowd; and it is possible for those who are solitaries to live in the crowd of their own thoughts.”
This desire for social purity, to protect oneself from the corruption of the outside, is not confined to the right or to the religious. Anyone who has been on the left long enough can tell stories of joining or encountering a highly insular group that refused to work with anyone who did not subscribe to all of their tenets. It is all too easy to convince ourselves that if only our group can be kept pure and committed, we can become strong enough to go out and change the world. This is where I think the Christian doctrine of original sin has something to teach the left. We can never externalize evil; we can’t simply gather the “right” group of people, because we ourselves are not right. As Dominican friar and socialist Fr. Herbert McCabe phrases it, “We do not have ‘God on our side,’ and this is not because God is neutral but because we are compromised.” The evil we desire in our hearts will find us even in isolation, and our ideologically pure group of comrades, closed off from the world, will destroy itself. Walsh’s sixth chapter deals with the need to take the Devil seriously, and I agree; I think he should remind himself that the Prince of Lies, if one believes in his existence, is far more cunning than we can hope to be, and the whispers in our hearts that urge us toward wrongdoing will not cease if we withdraw from society. We cannot escape evil: we must confront and answer it, and this is true whether we believe that evil arises from unjust social and economic circumstances or from the Devil who delights in them.
But Walsh lacks a vision of structural evil. He thinks that Christians in the United States have it easy, that the only thing stopping us from living out our faith is our own moral laziness. I agree that we are a morally lazy people, although I think this is cause for showing people compassion rather than haranguing them. But again, Walsh fails to spell out what living a Christian life would look like in America, other than retreat, and I think the reality would surprise him. When Fr. Daniel Berrigan, a Jesuit priest, decided that his faith bound him to disrupt the war operations of the U.S. government during its invasion of Vietnam by stealing and burning draft files, his life became sufficiently difficult that he went on the run from the FBI before being apprehended and imprisoned. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s faith and ministry led him to his Black civil rights activism and his advocacy for radical economic change; it also led him to being spied on and urged to kill himself by the FBI. Neither of these radical Christian lives finds its way into Walsh’s account.
I have written before about my beliefs regarding love and the need for love as the basis for all our action; indeed, I wholeheartedly believe that only through free and boundless love do we exist at all. Fr. Berrigan and Dr. King both, I think, acted in love, for in love we see the good of others as our own, and we no longer fear doing what must be done. St. John the Evangelist writes that “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love” (1 John 4:18). For me as a Christian the very literal metaphysical alternatives are Love and nothing, but I think this is easily transposed to our daily lives and the work of liberation. Love for our comrades is what drives us to forgive their mistakes and help them do better; love for our enemies is what leads us to desire not their destruction but their redemption into the coming society in which they, too, will lack nothing. We do not do this without risk; indeed, we risk a great deal in committing ourselves to love. For Christians the archetype of this risk is Christ, whose mission, as McCabe says in a Good Friday sermon, “was not to be a world leader but just to be human and accept the consequences of being human, which culminate in defeat.” Lest anyone mistake his meaning, McCabe elaborates further:
“So my thesis is that Jesus died of being human. His very humanity meant that he put up no barriers, no defences against those he loved who hated him. He refused to evade the consequences of being human in our inhuman world. So the cross shows up our world for what it really is, what we have made it. It is a world in which it is dangerous, even fatal, to be human; a world structured by violence and fear. The cross shows that whatever else may be wrong with this or that society, whatever may be remedied by this or that political or economic change, there is a basic wrong, persistent through history and through all progress: the rejection of the love that casts out fear, the fear of the love that casts out fear, the fear that without the backing of terror, at least in the last resort, human society and thus human life cannot exist.”
And it is precisely this fear that we see at work everywhere: a fear that shuts us off from other people and stops us from relating to them in any way except by force. Walsh writes about the need for Christians to keep their children out of public schools, because “when a kid is sent to public school, he’s expected to navigate and survive and thrive in a hostile, confusing, amoral environment, basically untethered from his parents.” Teachers, counselors, and other children are all rendered enemies who cannot be spoken with or related to, only repelled, and characterizing the children as “untethered” from their parents speaks to a deeper fear: that one’s own love for one’s children is insufficient; is unreal; is not substantial enough to forge a connection that will persist beyond the home and anchor a child when they encounter people and ideas that they might at first find new or strange. This is not something I or anyone else can help him with, but I hope he comes to realize that teaching children to address their gay and trans classmates with respect is not an assault on their faith, and that a tree planted in fear of his own self-admitted weakness, though it may provide a certain kind of shelter, can never bear the fruit of love.
For all this, though, I cannot entirely discount Walsh’s book, because unlike so many conservative writers, he mostly does not write cynically. I think he sees declining American religiosity and the genuine moral evils that arise out of capitalist libertinism—which teaches us that whatever we want to buy with money (a gas-guzzling car, a live-in servant) is automatically our right—and they make him afraid. He tries to be honest about his own failings and weaknesses, and about the ways in which our society encourages those failings: our news media broadcasts rage-inducing clickbait rather than substantive news, and our advertising industry encourages us to ask only whether we want to buy something instead of whether buying it will be good; they do this all for the sole sake of profit. And he’s right: Christians do need to show courage in resisting those enticements to anger over understanding and to convenience over necessity. But our fear of doing so is not unfounded: it is the very real and rational fear that emulating Jesus will invite the fate of Jesus. People who love fully can end up like St. Óscar Romero, who urged El Salvadoran soldiers to defy the military junta government’s unconscionable orders and was martyred by a death squad while celebrating Mass in a hospital chapel; they end up like Fred Hampton, whose determination to “fight racism with solidarity” and “fight capitalism with socialism” led to his being drugged and shot by the FBI; they end up like James Connolly, whose conviction that his country should not be ruled by a foreign government that had outlawed its majority religion for nearly three centuries led him to armed rebellion against the occupying army, for which he was executed by the British government. To love other people fully and truly is to say that there is no need for the strong to impose their will on the weak; it is to show by example that the whole apparatus of domination has no reason for being except sin and evil. Those whose rule and whose livelihoods depend on such domination do not take kindly to this. But in love we are dead to this concern; we give no thought to the standards of oppression but only to the good of our fellow human beings. Over the door of a monastery in Mount Athos, an ancient center of Orthodox Christian monasticism, there is an inscription in modern Greek that reads: “If you die before you die then you will not die when you die.” To love is not merely to risk our death but, in one way or another, to guarantee it. 
But I would urge Walsh and other Christians to remember that this is not the end of the story. If, as Walsh desires, we take our faith seriously, we must take seriously its most central claim: that God became human and died and rose again, and that those who live in love will do the same. For all of us, what we have under capitalist domination is not life. We get our life in snippets, in small and glittering pieces of love from friends and family and partners, but these treasures come to us not through our social order but against and in spite of it. What we have is not yet life in full, because capitalism does not allow us to live together in love. As McCabe writes elsewhere:
“What is wrong with capitalism, is simply that it is based on human antagonism, and it is precisely here that it comes in conflict with Christianity. Capitalism is a state of war, but not just a state of war between equivalent forces; it involves a war between those who believe in and prosecute war as a way of life, as an economy, and those who do not. The permanent capitalist state of war erupts every now and then into a major killing war, but its so-called peacetime is just war carried on by other means.”
When love demands that we risk this half-life, these crumbs of humanity, in order to put an end to this war and win life in abundance for ourselves and for everyone, then we begin to see how little we have to fear.
For Christians on the right who remain sympathetic to Walsh, and for people on the left who would like to see substantive reflection on what it means to love fully, I have books to recommend as alternatives to Walsh’s. The first is Marilynne Robinson’s 2004 novel Gilead, about John Ames, a small-town Calvinist pastor who takes very seriously his duty to his congregation and the commandment of love that his religion imposes on him. Ames narrates the novel, and in one particularly beautiful passage, he tries to describe what it means to him to talk with his parishioners:
“When people come to speak to me, whatever they say, I am struck by a kind of incandescence in them, the ‘I’ whose predicate can be ‘love’ or ‘fear’ or ‘want’ and whose object can be ‘someone’ or ‘nothing’ and it won’t really matter, because the loveliness is just in that presence, shaped around ‘I’ like a flame on a wick, emanating itself in grief and guilt and joy and whatever else.”
This is a serious portrait of someone who delights in the variety of humanity and in the good that comes simply from being present with others; it grapples with what it means to love through others’ moral frailty and our own, through impatience and ingratitude, through the ignorance and prejudice that come to each of us through our upbringings. It depicts the ongoing work of day-to-day love, with its trials, its difficulties, and its ultimate and inevitable triumph, and earned Robinson the Pulitzer Prize in 2005.
The other book I recommend is in many ways what Walsh’s book tries to be and fails. Karl Barth was a young pastor in rural Switzerland in 1914 when a group of 93 German intellectuals, including one of Barth’s most cherished teachers, signed a declaration in full support of German military actions at the beginning of World War I. Barth broke immediately with the liberal theology in which he was educated, and several years later published The Epistle to the Romans, which takes the form of a commentary on St. Paul’s letter of the same name. Writer and Christian socialist Phil Christman once described it to me as “basically unreadable, but like in a cool way,” and he is basically right. In prose both furious and erudite, Barth excoriates the theologians and pastors of his day who think that a Christian life can ever be subordinate to an earthly government; the standard for love, he says, is only ever Christ, and anything that displaces or diminishes that must be cast away, lest it lead to damnation. Barth was true to his convictions: while a professor of theology in Germany during the rise of the Third Reich, he helped to draft the Barmen Declaration asserting the total independence of the Protestant Church from the state and personally mailed a copy to Hitler; shortly afterward, after refusing a loyalty oath, he was forced to resign his professorship and fled back to Switzerland. He is widely recognized today as the single most important Protestant theologian of the 20th century, both for his profound intellectual contribution and for his fearless stand against fascism.
Walsh, however, is deeply afraid of other people and of himself; indeed, it seems to be the fear of his own moral weaknesses that leads him to fear other people and what they might tempt him to do. To Walsh, and to other Christians who suffer from that fear, I’m not here to say that you’re wrong, or that we shouldn’t acknowledge our weakness. But I think it’s a mistake to fear it, because implicit in that fear is the notion that we rely only on our own strength; we do not. Likewise, the fear that contact with the secular world will take your faith or your children’s faith is mistaken, because our faith is not founded on ourselves. But this fear is not merely mistaken: it destroys our ability to venture outside of ourselves, outside of what is familiar, and encounter our fellow human beings. This venturing out is not safe; it offers no guarantees, because love will never be a safe investment by the standards of the world. But love demands encounter. We cannot love in safety; we cannot feed the hungry from behind a wall; we cannot free captives whom we are afraid to face.
I do not pretend that casting out our fear by love is easy, or even that it is possible to do for ourselves. While we may aim at radical love intellectually, we have no roadmap; all we can do is love as best we can, until one day, when we need it, we find ourselves taken up in a love that will not let our petty selfishness and fear hold us back, and in its grip we give ourselves with neither delusion nor reservation to bringing life to our fellow human beings and to being fully human ourselves. And yet we have to aim at it, because without love we are left with the fear that cuts us off; that reduces other people to enemies who must be avoided or subdued; that will not let us be human. This is the vision that I hope to convey both to my fellow Christians on the right and to my fellow leftists who have graciously indulged me thus far: that the capitalist powers of the world which hold back and subdue life cannot last and will not prevail. Love appears to fail because domination cannot understand it, but its work is to cast down the mighty and exalt the humble, and if we love in this radical way, a light will shine in the darkness that the darkness cannot comprehend, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.